Actor Adrian Lester has the wonderful ability to make himself a clear glass through which emotions seem to pass unrefracted; his performances convey a sense not of performance or technical expertise but of direct and intimate communication. After his acclaim for Six Degrees Of Separation, Sweeney Todd and a magnificent Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl's all-male As You Like It, he and Lolita Chakrabarti wanted a challenge for the first production of their Ensemble company. The only surprise is that they overcome the problems of T.W. Robertson's Victorian drama with the familiar apparent effortlessness.
Robertson's story is prime sentimental fare. Aristocratic army officer George D'Alroy (Lester) marries Esther Eccles (Chakrabarti) from Lambeth, who is not simply working-class but – horrors! – earns her crust on the stage. The couple brave the prejudices of their respective social milieux that one must keep to one's station, but when George is presumed killed in India, Esther – her bequest squandered by a drunkard father – is forced to return to the squalor of her family. George's unexpected return is the cue for reconciliations all round and a traditional happy ending.
Director Brigid Panet creates a fine synthesis of playing styles to accommodate both modern expectations and the demands of the genre, and brings out the degree of intelligence and sensitivity which underlie Robertson's largely conventional piece. The production is stylish and assured – even a scene-change drew applause for its panache – and a uniformly dedicated cast performs with verve and precision. (Particular mention is deserved by Corinne Martin as Polly, Esther's flibbertigibbet sister with the obligatory heart of gold.)
Ensemble disarmingly admit in the programme that the company of Caste has been unpaid. If this marvellous début doesn't put money in their purse for future productions, there ain't no justice.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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